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Franz Mesmer: biography of this pioneer of hypnosis

Franz Mesmer: biography of this pioneer of hypnosis

March 28, 2024

Although it remains a practice questioned by many experts, hypnosis has become a useful method to enhance the effects of psychotherapy in cases of insomnia, smoking and even post-traumatic stress. However, in the beginning, hypnosis was an unscientific procedure whose mechanism was not known or by those who used it.

For a long time hypnosis it was known as "mesmerism" in honor of Franz Mesmer , the doctor who popularized this technique. In this article we will explain what mesmerism consisted of and what were the peculiar hypotheses on which its creator was based. In addition we will make a brief review of the development of hypnosis after Mesmer.


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Who was Franz Mesmer?

Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer He was born in Iznang, a town in southwestern Germany, in 1734. Although he previously studied theology and law, he received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Vienna with a thesis entitled "On the influence of the planets on the human body"; it is believed that he partially plagiarized the work of the physician Richard Mead.

In his thesis, Mesmer proposed that the gravitational forces of the stars had a role in health and disease , intuitively expanding Isaac Newton's theory of gravity. Later he would develop these ideas up to the most famous concept of his work: animal magnetism, to which we will dedicate the following section.


At 33 he established himself as a doctor in Vienna, but was not satisfied with the procedures of the time, which he considered aggressive and ineffective. The case of Francisca Österlin, a patient with hysteria , marked a turn in his career: according to Mesmer, he transferred "animal magnetism" from his body to that of Mrs. Österlin using magnets, suppressing the symptoms for a few hours.

From this case, Mesmer acquired certain fame in Vienna, but moved to Paris in 1777 as his skills were questioned by a truculent case of psychogenic blindness. In France he trained several disciples and tried to get his methods to be considered legitimate; He received both recognition and criticism, and ended up exiling himself to Switzerland.

Mesmerism continued after the death of its creator , in 1815, through his followers, some of whom were respected doctors. From the animal magnetism and the attempts of the critics of Mesmer to refute their hypotheses, the field of hypnosis would develop, forever stained by the reputation of its "father".


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Hypothesis of animal magnetism

Mesmer affirmed that living beings have an invisible fluid, animal magnetism , which allows nervous functioning and whose imbalance can cause many diseases; therefore, the method to cure them should consist of the manipulation of magnetism.

So, Mesmer he started using magnets with the purpose of modifying the concentration of animal magnetism in the affected parts of the body. Specifically, he believed that he could transfer this energy from his body, where it abounded, to that of his patients. He later stopped using magnets and developed more extravagant therapeutic procedures.

According to Mesmerism thesis, animal fluid flows spontaneously through the organism of living beings, but blockages occur in its circulation. Mesmer postulated that diseases could be cured from the induction of "crisis" by people with high levels of animal magnetism, like him and his disciples.

Mesmer's hypothesis must be framed in the context in which he lived. In the eighteenth century it was not strange to hear about magnetism or a "universal fluid", since there were still alchemists who held such a belief. Also popular were Newton's theses on the existence of the ether , a substance with similar characteristics.

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The Mesmer techniques

Mesmer sat in front of his patients, causing their knees to touch each other, and he stared into their eyes. Then he rubbed the patient's arms with his hands and pressed his fingers against his belly for a long time; sometimes this caused therapeutic "crises", for example seizures . Finally he played a glass harmonica.

Later, after achieving fame, Mesmer began to apply his treatments to large groups of people - often aristocrats who sought entertainment rather than medicine.In these cases I used a container with iron rods that had to touch the affected body part of each person.

Despite his bizarre methods, Mesmer managed to cure many alterations of psychological origin, mainly in cases of hysteria: although his hypotheses were erroneous, his procedures were effective through auto-suggestion , a mechanism that has been confirmed by scientific research.

From mesmerism to hypnosis

After the death of Mesmer the effects of mesmerism would be attributed to the control of the behavior of patients. However, Doctors like John Elliotson and James Eisdale resorted to Mesme's methods r to treat psychogenic disorders or anesthetize their patients; this last use became irrelevant with the appearance of chemical anesthetics.

The passage from magnetism to hypnosis is attributed to James Braid , a Scottish surgeon who coined the term "hypnotism". Braid claimed that the state of hypnosis depended on the patient's physical and mental conditions, and not on an abstract magnetic fluid; nevertheless, the effectiveness of mesmerism in some alterations seemed undeniable.

On the other hand, there were also those who followed the tradition of magnetism, mainly to cure physical illnesses. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was the profession of the "magnetizer" , people who used magnets or gestures similar to those of Mesmer based on their pseudoscientific proposals.

Because of the weakness of Mesmer's hypotheses the hypnotists who succeeded him were discredited by the scientific community. To a large extent this position is maintained to this day, despite the fact that hypnosis has been validated by science as a therapeutic support tool .

Bibliographic references:

  • Leahey, T. H. (2004). History of Psychology, 6th Edition. Madrid: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Pattie, F. (1994). Mesmer and Animal Magnetism. Hamilton: Edmonston Pub.

Hypnosis in History - Revealing Documentary, Facts, Photos, Mesmer, Braid and More (March 2024).


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